• Cedar Counseling & Wellness

3 Tips for a Self-Compassionate Return to Exercise While Re-emerging from the Pandemic

Updated: Aug 11

In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Jennifer Weiner writes about how the weight loss industry is poised to seize upon the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on our bodies. She warns us to anticipate increased messaging about dieting and encourages us to “resist.” She concludes by saying, “After everything we’ve endured - and as the crisis still rages around the world - each of us should cherish the body that has got us through it, rather than punish it for failing to fit into last year’s skinny jeans."

It’s in these moments of dramatic change and hardship that we are most vulnerable to self-criticism and fall victim to the diet industry’s schemes. Changes to our routines have significant impacts. It’s no wonder our bodies might have changed as a result. We started working from home. Our gyms closed. We became more socially isolated, perhaps leading to depression. The virus threatened to infect us and our loved ones, generating a new underlying anxiety. Stressors increased and we were forced to adapt. We all developed new coping skills. These new behaviors might have been positive or negative, but either way they helped us survive.

If you’re like me, you might be feeling pretty out of shape right now after more than a year of disruption and disconnection. As more and more people get vaccinated, life is beginning to return to the way it used to be and we can resume some of our old routines.

Here are 3 things you can do to resist the diet-mentality and be more mindful as you return to exercise:

1. Drop Your Expectations, Stay Present

It is easy to go into an activity with expectations-whether they are based on your past experiences or where you’d like to see yourself in the future. Maybe you return to your yoga studio thinking about the class you regularly attended pre-COVID and how smoothly you used to be able to flow between poses. Or perhaps you start your run thinking about how you want to run that 10k in September in less than 1 hour. Of course, our past experiences can be informative and provide wisdom, and goal-setting is important for self-improvement, but oftentimes these thoughts lead to comparison that steals us away from the present moment. From there, we can quickly spiral. Suddenly, we’re beating ourselves up for struggling to settle into downward dog or not being able to finish our 5 mile run. Dropping these expectations allows us to be more gracious with ourselves and make the most of where we are right now.

2. Notice Without Judgment

When we focus on the present, we can eliminate distractions and are better able to become attuned to what’s happening in our bodies. Instead of pushing yourself to run your exact race distance or your ideal race pace on one of your first training runs, try running for time instead and feel out a comfortable pace. Try to keep a level head throughout and accept the information your body is telling you. Keep that critical voice in check that tells you that you’re a failure for not keeping the pace you initially thought you could do.

I used to regularly attend barre classes but stopped after the studios closed. I did one of my first online workouts and found that my legs quivered quite a bit during one of the exercises. I could have let that inner judging voice berate me and tell me that I’m weak, but instead I kept a neutral mindset and solely thought of it as an observation and a response: “My legs shake when I do this, I’m going to breathe more consciously through this pose and trust with practice it will get easier.”

3. Check Your Intention & Cultivate Gratitude

When picking an activity or exercise to engage in, it can be beneficial to check your intention first. Ask yourself questions like:

  • Why am I choosing to engage in this activity?

  • Am I doing this with the hope of changing my appearance?

  • Am I doing this because I enjoy it?

  • How will this activity serve me at this moment?

  • How will this activity serve me in the future?

As we identify our intention and the benefits of the activity, we can begin to cultivate gratitude as well. Recently, I’ve found myself choosing to engage in activities that allow me to embrace the longer days we can enjoy in the summertime. Connecting with nature helps me appreciate the beauty of the world. I started running again in preparation for a race that was postponed twice. The race is in a city where I used to live and I’m registered along with a friend who I haven’t seen in a while. Preparing for this event makes me appreciate the opportunity for human connection after a long period of time that prevented us from traveling and gathering together.

Incorporating these practices in my exercise routine has freed me from feelings of embarrassment, guilt, and shame. It’s allowed me to build on this feeling of hope that is rising as the world begins to return to what it once was. I hope you will not let the diet industry steal these small joys from you after a difficult year. If you need help embracing a more positive relationship with your body and food, don’t hesitate to reach out to our Annapolis dietitians.


Maryann Hauver is a licensed dietitian dedicated to helping people make peace with food and their bodies through an intuitive eating, non-diet approach.

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